USM’s Saunders is part of a key group of people helping to lead the way in education
by Martin Willoughby
Published: January 2,2012
Hold on tightly. As we enter 2012, the pace of change in our economy is unlikely to slow down anytime soon. As Vince Poscente stated in his bestseller, “The Age of Speed,” “Speed is a fact of modern life.” This speed is driven by the pace of technological change in our society. Futurist
and author Ray Kurzweil calls this the “law of accelerating returns” that fundamental measures of information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories. An example is “Moore‘s law” named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore which states that you can place twice as many components on an integrated circuit every two years, and they run faster because they are smaller. Consider for a moment the speed at which Facebook grew from its inception in 2004 to the hundreds of millions of users today. One of the realities of this rapidly changing world is a need for post-secondary education. A white paper titled “Help Wanted — Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018” published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows that by 2018, we will need 22 million new college degrees, but we are likely to fall at least 3 million short. This paper pointed out that between 1973 and 2008, the share of jobs in the U.S. economy which required post-secondary education increased from 28 percent to 59 percent.
On the front lines of meeting this challenge are the leaders of our institutions of higher learning in Mississippi. Dr. Martha Dunagin Saunders, president of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) shared some of her thoughts on leadership with me. Dr. Saunders took office in May 2007 as the ninth president and first woman ever elected to the presidential post at USM. Dr. Saunders is an alumna of USM and went on to obtain a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in communication theory and research from Florida State University. During her 30-year career in higher education, she has taught thousands of students, published extensively, and excelled in leadership positions. Her leadership posts included serving as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of West Florida, vice president of academic affairs at Columbus State University, and chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Dr. Saunders noted that future leaders face “a world and workplace that are changing at lightning pace.” She emphasized that, “leaders have to make big decisions in very short timeframes.” Despite her busy schedule as president, Dr. Saunders still makes time to teach in the classroom. She follows three simple guiding principles with her philosophy of education: know your students, connect them to bigger things, and set a good example. As a leader, she similarly follows the guiding principles to know her co-workers, make good things happen for them, and always set a good example. Dr. Saunders leverages modern communication tools such as a blog and You Tube videos to stay connected with her constituency. She also has an “Ask The President” link on the USM website where she can receive questions, comments, and suggestions. Under her leadership, USM is striving to achieve its vision to be “the premier research university of the Gulf South – engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities.”
Being a leader in higher education today is a challenging role. There are shrinking resources and a very diverse university community. Dr. Saunders shared, “it is important to accept the reality of dwindling resources and find a way to do more than ‘make do.’ At Southern Miss we are working hard to budget for the things that matter and create incentives for productivity.” Like other great leaders, Dr. Saunders believes that “It is important for a leader to be able to see over the hill far enough to prepare her constituents for what lies ahead.” Saunders and her colleagues at USM are certainly playing a critical role in the future of our state, and I am encouraged by the vision and passion in which they are preparing tomorrow’s leaders.
Martin Willoughby, a business lawyer in Jackson, is a regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. Willoughby can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.
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